For millennia, people around the world have reported alarming animal behavior before natural disasters
In 2004, a tsunami caused by a magnitude 9.1 underwater earthquake off Indonesia destroyed coastal communities around the Indian Ocean, killing at least 225,000 people in several countries. The huge death toll was partly due to the fact that many communities did not receive early warning. This was reported by the BBC.
According to eyewitnesses, minutes and hours before the natural disaster, the animals in the affected coastal communities began to behave differently than usual.
Elephants ran to higher ground, flamingos abandoned low-lying nesting sites, and dogs refused to go outside.
Early warning systems do not exist in many areas regularly affected by natural disasters. In 2017, the World Meteorological Organization found that the governments of about 100 countries still did not have early warning systems for natural disasters to which they were prone.
Stories of animal behavior before disasters have led some researchers to pay close attention to the theory that animals may have “embedded systems” that warn them of impending natural disasters.
This raises the question – Can animals provide natural early warning systems to humans?
One of the most important studies on how animals can predict disasters was conducted five years ago by a team led by Martin Wickelski of the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Germany. The study involved recording patterns of movement of various animals (cows, sheep and dogs) on a farm in the Marche earthquake region of central Italy. Chip collars were attached to each animal that sent movement data to a central computer every few minutes between October 2016 and April 2017.
During this period, official statistics recorded more than 18,000 earthquakes in the region, from small earthquakes of magnitude 0.4 to more than 10 earthquakes of magnitude 4 or more – including the devastating earthquake in Norway with a magnitude of 6.6.
Researchers have found evidence that farm animals began to change their behavior up to 20 hours before the earthquake.
Each time the observed farm animals were 50% more active for more than 45 minutes, the researchers predicted an earthquake with a magnitude greater than 4.0. Seven of the eight major earthquakes were properly predicted in this way.
“The closer the animals were to the epicenter of the impending shock, the earlier they changed their behavior,” Wickelski said in 2020, when the study was published.
Another study by Wickelski, which observed the movements of marked goats on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, also found that the animals appeared to have a premonition of when Mount Etna would erupt.
In South America, behavioral ecologist Rachel Grant – now at the University of South Bank in London – found similar results. She conducted a biological study of animal movement patterns using motion-triggered cameras in the Yanachaga National Park in the Peruvian Andes for a period that included the 2011 magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Contaman.
“The number of animals recorded by the cameras began to decline about 23 days before the quake – with the decline accelerating eight days before the quake,” Grant said in his 2015 study paper, 10, 6, 5, 3 and 2. days before the earthquake – and on the day of the earthquake – no animal movements were recorded, which is very unusual. “
Most importantly, Grant also found evidence of what could cause changes in the behavior of local animals, in the form of a series of strong disturbances in local atmospheric charges every two to four minutes, starting two weeks before the earthquake. A particularly large fluctuation was registered about eight days before the earthquake in Contamana – coinciding with the beginning of the second stage of the disappearance of animals from view.
Scientists are now investigating whether these pre-earthquake electromagnetic disturbances could be a warning sign of impending earthquakes that animals may be feeling.
Earthquakes are invariably preceded by a period in which deep stresses occur in deep rocks – voltages known to create electronic charges. These highly mobile electronic charge carriers can travel rapidly to the earth’s surface, where they ionize air molecules above where they appear. Such ionization was observed before earthquakes around the world.
“The harbingers of the earthquake are not well documented scientifically,” said Matthew Blackett, an associate professor of physical geography and natural hazards at Coventry University. According to him, some scientists believe that the animals could develop a seismic escape mechanism. “Maybe they detect pressure waves before earthquakes arrive, maybe they detect changes in the electric field. Animals also contain a lot of iron, which is sensitive to magnetism and electric fields.
Many animals are equipped with a highly developed sensor apparatus that can read a set of natural signals on which their lives may depend – so it seems quite possible that some animals may be able to capture the precursors of earthquakes.
In a 2020 paper, Wickelski and colleagues presented a prototype for an earthquake early warning system, using animal activity monitoring sites based on data from his research in Italy.
China, meanwhile, has already set up an earthquake warning system at its earthquake office in Nanning, monitoring the behavior of animals, particularly snakes on farms in an earthquake-prone region. Snakes have a powerful set of sensory mechanisms aimed at detecting small changes in aspects of their environment and, in part, sudden changes in the behavior of snakes and other animals that led authorities to evacuate the Chinese city of Haicheng in 1975 just before a major earthquake countless lives.
“Of all the creatures on earth, snakes are perhaps the most sensitive to earthquakes,” the then-Nanning bureau director told China Daily in 2006. “When an earthquake is about to happen, snakes will come out of their nests, even in the cold winter. “
Earthquakes are not the only environmental hazards that animals seem to warn about. Birds are increasingly in the spotlight, as they can obviously detect other impending natural hazards.